Development Workers Are Foxes

I was getting up to date on WhyDev – an excellent forum for development discussion online – and came across the post ‘8 things I wish I knew before I started in development’ by Rachel Kurzyp.

This post makes a lot of valid points and is well worth the read. I must admit that I clicked on it with an expectation of banality – ever since the Huffington Post took the format of ‘X things to know about Y’ and flooded the internet with vapid articles such titles immediately provoke a sense of wariness – but was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I found one point, the second, stuck with me for several days:

2. It’s important to be a generalist

While it’s great to be an expert in a specific field it’s just as important to be a generalist. You need to be comfortable and able to take on general tasks when required such as basic admin, report writing and supply distribution. Humanitarian work is on-going, though there are periods of downtime, but you may be required to do dual roles in smaller programmes. You could also find yourself without work for short periods due to programme closures or waiting on grant approvals. This is when you can draw upon your past life’s skills and gain work in other departments or roles outside of the development sector.

I think this is sound advice. Trends and fashions change the prevailing winds in development at least as much as in any other sector. As nurses or teachers will tell you, any industry that politicians have direct and immediate access to is liable to get shaken up, oh, every four years or so. It would, therefore, be cruel to advise any wannabe development types (like myself) to specialise too soon. Besides, there are a lot of ‘basic’ skills and experiences you have to get under your belt before you can think about hunkering down into a speciality and living up to that possibly dubious ‘expert’ tag you’re itching to add to your Twitter bio.

This got me thinking about Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay The Hedgehog And The Fox which opens by examining the divide between specialists and generalists:

There is a line amongst the fragments of the Greek Poet Archilochus which says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”… Taken figuratively,  the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writer and thinkers and, it may be, human beings in general.

Source: Flickr

It would seem to me that development workers are foxes, or, at least, better off being foxes. These are not categorisations intended to be taken as gospel truth, of course. Berlin goes on to point out that these lines could be, very specifically, about actual hedgehogs and foxes – i.e. hedgehogs know one way to stop a fox from eating them and it is a successful one despite the different techniques of the fox. But, as a thought experiment, it is a nice way to start thinking about colleagues or thinkers or professors or writers or, if you’re feeling particularly  brave, even yourself. It is especially interesting to examine the industry in light of this artificial definition.

Is it useful for development workers to be foxes?

I agree with the WhyDev post in that it makes those workers more employable and probably easier to work with. But is that missing the bigger picture? Perhaps the generalist outlook of development is misguided. Perhaps it perpetuates a system that seems to be addicted to reinvention, to new bold narratives of change and progress. Such things fill the blogosphere with laments and generally the big guys get pointed out as culprits – donors, governments, the military. While the notion of the development worker as a fox opens up excellent opportunities in punning blog post headlines, this could well be scant reward for collusion in ineptitude.

Alternatively,  you could argue that the hedgehog is a disastrous profile for a development worker. It suggests inflexibility which makes team based projects a strained experience at best. Is there anyway a development project, let alone entire organisation, would work without an emphasis on teamwork? Sure, the fox might go low on details but at least it will try to innovate and attempt different options –  the notion of listening to stakeholders at beneficiary and benefactor level seems too sound to throw away to me. That might be worth defending the vulpine status quo on its own.

Once again, the model is something of a nonsense but, play along. Think about it in a context close to you and see if it doesn’t stick in your mind. It did for me. If you have thoughts, please post them below so readers can access more coherent thoughts than my own. If it doesn’t stick with you then… well, that’s just typical fox behaviour isn’t it?

The Momentum Of The Blogosphere

A bunch of awesome people @ #GV2012 — Source: 0neiros via flickr

Last week the Global Voices 2012 (#GV2012) summit was held in Nairobi. All of a sudden, the city I live and work in was inundated by all manner of awesome people. I kept seeing people I greatly admire talking about lectures and presentations, it was a hell of a treat to see so many intelligent people whose content I enjoy so much all talking together. It felt like a pretty big deal, even from the outside.

Check out a storify on #GV2012 here.

As I hungrily lapped up updates I started to notice a pattern: a lot of these voices whose opinions I so respected were not media professional. They were bloggers. Citizen journalists. Activists. Whether as a result of my embrace of Twitter or some other reason, I realised that my ‘go to’ sources for most news is no longer traditional news sources.

Don’t get me wrong, I still open up The Guardian or the Washington Post most days to flick through it but that’s normally only for sport or for op-ed pieces discussing ‘news’ I’ve already digested through non-traditional means like blogs or social media. There are a notable few journalists that I do follow but most fall into the categories like ‘worth keeping an eye on’ or ‘likes to argue’ or ‘friends’ – not ‘MUST READ’. With some of these – Charles Onyango Obbo is the example that springs to mind – I actively prefer their non-official output to their columns or news pieces in newspapers and the like. This was a slightly startling discovery.

This week I fired up the interwebs to discover that Whydev – one of the best international development sites around – has rebranded (and to everyone involved with that, you did a good job). I got weirdly excited by this. Then I noticed that the excellent View From The Cave had rebranded and, once again, looked great. These are terrific sites run by experts who are both passionate about the field and communicating their experiences and challenges to a wider audience.

These sites are awesome. Now that they look better, more people are likely to get hooked on their kickass content. I take back the ‘weirdly’ from earlier – I am excited by this!

The more we encourage wider engagement with niche or technical sectors the better off we will be. Events like #GV2012 top-trended world wide. Top aid blogs are starting to get attention from mainstream sources. Other top aid blogs now look and work really well. Hopefully, this is an example of snowballing (in a good way).

Getting big name publications to assign the topic a general reporter with no in depth knowledge of the issue or personal connection to it might bring wider attention to the issue but is it the kind of attention that we want? If the development/aid blogosphere continues to grow more robust and more accessible, those mainstream publications will a) start to steal their ‘niche’ article opinions from better sources and b) start to get circumvented all together.

I’ll say it again – I am excited by this!

Business First, Human Rights Later – Why the disconnect?

I know that the answer is 'the egg'. I'm just trying to illustrate a point alright, give me a break a break.

Source: 24expo via Stephanie on Pinterest

I have recently been writing reports on the state of freedom of expression in four countries in the Horn of Africa: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. As you can probably guess, things aren’t amazing there. The GDPs are low, the governments are stupendously powerful, corruption is high and the whole region seems to be on a knife edge in terms of both food security and the ever present threat of invasion (from within and without). Things like the right to free speech or free assembly are pretty much on the back burner.

Many people would argue that human rights necessarily need to be ignored for development to occur. They can come later, once things are established and the economy is moving – then we can worry about voters’ rights and other silly things like that. Harvard professor Calestous Juma is a high profile proponent of the ‘infrastructure first, human rights later‘ model, arguing that concerning oneself with human rights before the infrastructure necessary for economic success was in place is, at best, a needless distraction; at worst, willful neglect. A few weeks ago, an English man in a Nairobi bar, on hearing that I worked for a human rights organisation, jabbed his finger at my chest and declared that I was “the fucking devil”. Obviously, a rights-based approach has its detractors.

Some people would suggest a less hardline position: while sometimes useful, rights based programming can be counter productive when applied to certain field situations. A recent post by Weh Yeoh of – ‘When talking about human rights is irrelevant’ – outlined an example where he felt this to be the case. He was working in China and felt that his colleagues were too culturally and educationally disconnected from the whole notion of rights based programming for it to be useful. The situation, the context, didn’t fit the solution – how often have we heard that complaint regarding a ‘international development’ intervention?

These are fair points, particularly in a strictly not-for-profit, development paradigm. But few people would argue that such a model seems likely to be the story of Africa this century. It is booming. Of the 10 fastest growing economies of the next five years, 7 are predicted to be African. The title of the Ernst & Young Africa attractiveness report of 2011 was ‘It’s time for Africa‘. China and India have long since moved in, Brazil and Russia are looking to do so. Everyone is.

Now look at that Ernst & Young report again – turn to page 23 – and check out the list of factors that dissuade potential investors from pouring capital into Africa. Lack of infrastructure is on there with 17% of responders (large potential investors from all over the world) choosing it. However, above infrastructure concerns come corruption, 22%, and unstable political environment, by far the most concerning factor at 41%. The link between the latter and a promotion of human rights is well documented – liberal democracies have fewer wars and less famine, cases argued very famously by smarter people than me. But what about corruption?

A quick look at Corruption Perception Index 2011 – a ranking of how corrupt a variety of stakeholders perceive countries to be, very much related to the chances of foreign investment – shows that 9 out 10 of the worst countries are also ranked ‘Not Free’ by Freedom House’s Press Freedom 2011 report. There’s a reason people protect the free media and the right to free speech. Acting as watchdogs, as whistleblowers against the excesses of government is a vital role. Without it, countries not only become worse in terms of standard of living, they also become less attractive to investment. This is no moral issue: huge corruption makes the costs of investment larger because of all that unavoidable greasing of palms involved in working in very corrupt countries. At a certain point, corporations don’t stand to gain so much from such deals and take their business elsewhere. Why wouldn’t they?

Of course, corruption can be fought, effectively, by non rights-based policymaking. I hear you, detractors, I hear you shouting ‘Rwanda’ or ‘China’ for places attracting investment without human rights underpinning their performances. Cursorily, I’d reply that both are too early in their respective booms to have reached the ceiling where it starts to hurt them. Failing that, essentially, I would argue that, if you can combat corruption by promoting human rights and thereby improve people’s individual liberties, why wouldn’t you?

You have growth, you have improvements in people’s lives, you have freedom. It is at this point that I lose the plot a little: is the desire to create the most powerful economy so great that you would willingly choose to emulate China (regardless that it is probably not possible in most places) and all the abuses against your own citizens that that entails?

Human rights and business don’t have to be incompatible. It seems to me that a dogged pursuit of the latter at the expense of the former is ideological, a decision that ends in people suffering despite profits increasing rather than being able to enjoy their prosperity. Why choose that?

A Message To Jaded Or Newly Jaded Development Types

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I have genuinely overheard this quote being used on a newly arrived EAW in a bar in Kampala. Brutal.

The other night, my flat mate and I were out aggressively making new friends in our new city. This process is, as you can imagine, vaguely embarrassing and unpleasant particularly because you spend quite a lot of time accepting/soliciting invites to events that you would normally have absolutely zero interest in but, because of your lack of socialising options, you think well alright I will go to this Hard House club night, I might enjoy it I suppose… It’s only when you actually arrive at said club night that you remember – oh yeah – I hate clubs. The less said about Hard House the better.

Anyway, after encountering the usual stock NGO type conversation (“How long have you been here?” + “What do you do?” + “How long are you staying?” + “Is this your first time in [insert geographic region]?” = a thorough assessment of any expat aid worker) and imbibing a little too much and exchanging all manner of field cred proving anecdotes we ended up having a conversation with a guy who mostly worked in Somalia for a mine clearance NGO.

As you can imagine, most people working in Somalia do so in pretty difficult circumstances. The work is dangerous, the country is dangerous, there’s very little infrastructure, little governance, even less effective governance and, as such, fairly scant short to medium term prospects for most of the population.Trying to affect positive and lasting change in such an environment is bound to be a difficult, frustrating and occasionally depressing process. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t drive you crazy at least 50% of the time.

Drinking heavily is the favoured coping mechanism amongst the NGO crowd, of course, but there are a whole plethora of other options. Some people go on these mysterious disappearances where they secret themselves away at some campsite or the nearest resort with wifi for a week or so without telling anyone before rolling back into your regular bar or restaurant as though they never went away. A good one I haven’t experienced but definitely want to is ‘Boda Polo’ or Polo played on motorcycles (recently featured in the pages of the New York Times but having been around since at least 2008 when I first heard about it). Cathartic affairs, bombastic public arguments, cookery, home brewing, obsessive running – you name it; an EAW somewhere is using it as a way of combating work-based stress.

I should give a big plug for the Whydev peer coaching scheme which is aimed at giving EAWs and all the rest of the development world a way of dealing with stress and fatigue without resorting to alcohol – read about it here, donate here.

But back to our night out. The way this Somalia-Mine-Clearing (SMC) guy handled it was by comparing his nights out to the ones his brother had. His brother worked in ‘the City’ (the financial district in London) and earned piles of money. In fact, most of his family were engaged in business or finance in some lucrative way that meant the amount SMC was pulling in could be found down the back of the sofa in most of his relatives’ houses. Obviously, this makes sibling rivalry a little difficult. The way he retaliated it was this: on a night out with a bunch of EAWs you’re more than likely to have at least one interesting, intelligent conversation that isn’t about your own area of work. Because a) the people attracted to the field tend to be well travelled and have a wider range of interests than people in other fields like banking (i.e. are not focused on dough) and b) the industry, such as it is, is a huge and diverse one so you’re quite likely to meet someone who does something you’ve no idea about but which interests you. Which is actually pretty great. Essentially it comes down to this somewhat paraphrased sentiment:

If I was working in the City, making 250 grand a year, I’d also have to do long hours and would be just as stressed as I am at the moment. I’d go down to a bar after work and, what, spend a couple of hours talking to another asshole who makes a lot of money. What would we talk about? Making lots of money? No thanks.

So, to eventually come to some kind of a point, for all you jaded or newly jaded development types: it’s a frustrating and poorly paid world for us but at least you’re pretty much guaranteed some good conversation every once and a while. You just have to get out there and talk to people.

Who’s for another drink?